The First Night
The Russian girl led us into a multi-leveled, small building with short flights of steps in between the levels. It was like a bad camp. A lot of beige. They brought us to a room with big wooden cubbyholes and lockers. The Russian girl told us to put our stuff away.
“You can…….take money. You can take…….few things.”
I grabbed my make-up bag for reasons that are not clear to me. Vanity, I guess. She looked inside, seeing a razor, nail clippers and tweezers.
“No, you not take this,” she said. I laughed. Of course not.
I grabbed a change of underwear and shirt, my notebook and several pencils (I don’t go anywhere without several, sharpened pencils) and my newly acquired “Hyperbole and a Half” book.
We went upstairs to the office area.
“Why are you in Israel,” someone asked. Again, an accusation.
“I wanted to see Jerusalem,” I said again.
“You need to call the embassy right now and tell them where you are.”
“Yeah, ok,” I said. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? Why hadn’t anyone called the embassy yet?
“I don’t have the number,” I stumbled.
“We have the number.” He gave it to me. I wrote it down in my notebook. He said something in Hebrew to another guy, pointing to my scarf. I had worn a v-neck shirt on the flight and added the scarf in Munich so as not to offend whatever variety of conservative person I might encounter. When in Rome and all that. I thought I heard him use the word, “keffiyah,” to describe my scarf. I was a little defensive at that point and I said, “No, this is a Native American print.”
I got the embassy on the phone and a marine answered.
“Hi, my name is Nicole LaCour and I’m in an Israeli immigration facility. I lost my passport in Germany.”
“Hold on, M’am.”
I told the story to someone named Marsha and she promised to call the place back and work on my problem. I told the staff what she said. The same guy who had pointed to my scarf said, “Come with me. I want to show you something.”
“Ok,” I said.
The floor had a sort of open plan with 3 or 4 rooms, each with a metal door and small, square window. The doors were painted the color of really bad, green baby poo. Maybe a little darker. Kind of army green but more baby-poo like.
“This is where the women go,” he said pointing to the first room. “This is where people go when they’re giving us trouble.” He pointed to a second room.
“This is the family room.” He took me to a large room with two sets of bunk beds, a bathroom, a shower and a large open window. A cool breeze was wafting in.
“This is where you will stay tonight. Do you know why I’m putting you in here?”
“Uh, because that other woman is crazy and attacked a guard?” I guessed.
“I want you to understand that this is not a jail.”
“Ok. I understand that,” I said.
“I didn’t think your scarf was a keffiyah,” he explained, “It looks like a Iraqi design.”
“Oh,” I said, “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.”
“And I noticed the Hamsa around your neck,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, “you know this has meaning across all cultures, Christians, Arabs….it’s not just a Jewish symbol.”
“Yes,” he said, “I’m Arab. I know all about it. Try to sleep.”
He left a po-boy-like sandwich and closed the door. I never saw him again.
I looked out the big, open window. There were bars made into a design with lots of diagonals. The weather was gorgeous. No hint of humidity, of course. I was so glad I brought a jacket and kept it out, not packed away. The night air was cool.
“I’m not going to see Jerusalem,” I thought.
There was a Winnie the Pooh decoration of the wall. It must have been a growth chart but only the bottom part was on the wall. Pooh Bear was holding up Tigger, but only Tigger’s bottom half was there.
Shower. There’s a shower. I took my clothes off and got in the shower, not remembering that I had neither soap, shampoo, nor towel. I got out and sort of wiped off most of the water with a roll of toilet paper and just put my clothes back on. My hair was dripping. Minutes after dressing, another guy opened the door.
“The embassy is on the phone.”
The woman at the embassy didn’t know much but asked if I was ok. “Yes, all things considered,” I said.
“Is your husband there also?” she asked.
“I’m not married. I’m here alone.”
She asked if I wanted to inform anyone. I was afraid to. I didn’t want to alarm anybody. I said no.
The guy took me back to the room and left the door open.
I sat on the top bunk and wrote. I felt a wave of shame. I was so embarrassed. How could I be so stupid?
“Why Jerusalem,” everyone had asked. “Why not Rome or Paris?” I didn’t want to do something so “normal.” I wanted something more gritty. I liked the idea of the tension, the history. I wanted to feel the thousands of years of history in the walls and the streets and the daily life and activity of the city. I want to experience what I had read about. I wanted to see all those holy places, place prayers in the cracks of the Western Wall, see the tomb of the Virgin Mary and the Church of Mary Magdalene. Eat hummus from street vendors and buy silly trinkets. Take photographs!
I wanted to be daring and bold and adventurous. I wanted to be a different person. I had told everyone that I was going to Jerusalem. My guidebook was highlighted. I read books and watched movies. I had north, south, east and west written in Hebrew in my now lost black notebook.
I felt like a fool, a failure. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back. I wanted to hide under a rock. A bunk bed in a detention center would do for now.
“You wanted gritty?” I asked myself, “Well, you dropped your fucking passport. You got gritty now.”
I looked around the room and discovered writing on the plywood under the top bunks. A lot of writing. “You can detain me, but I’ll be back.” Some hateful stuff. “My two-year old was in here.” A lot in foreign languages. A note from a U.S. Congresswoman who was there with a peace activist. I wrote their names down.
I tried to sleep.
My pants were very comfortable. I laughed at myself. I could write a J. Petermen catalog description about my New York and Company jeans.
The stretchy cotton of the NY&C jeans have the hip look of real blue jeans, easily paired with Chuck Taylor’s of any color, yet so comfortable that if one finds oneself on a 3-inch plastic mattress on the top bunk at an Israeli detention center, they will feel like silk pajamas. Warning: The back pockets are not as deep as say a pair of Levi’s. You might not want to put your passport there, even just for a few minutes. It might fall out without you ever noticing it.
I looked down at my feet and my new, beautiful, purple converses.
“Thank God I bought these,” I said to myself. “Because the ratty old black converses I had would not do in this fine establishment.”
I was seriously happy that I had bought I a watch. That cheap little Target watch kept me sane. I read a little, wrote a lot and tried to sleep on my jacket.
September 19 Friday
I woke up in the morning, my sense of humor in tact.
Quotes from my favorite movie, A Room With a View, came to mind.
“This is not what we were led to expect. I thought we were going to see the Arno.”
“This pensione is a failure. Tomorrow we’ll make a change.”
I thought about the episode of Girls when Hannah does cocaine so she could write about it.
I thought about the episode of the IT Crowd when Roy gets thrown out of his building with no shirt. “I work here!” he screams, “My badge is my jacket! My badge is my jacket!”
Around 7am, I timidly walked to the front office.
“May I call the embassy again and…..coffee?” I asked, gesturing with my hands.
“We’re changing shifts. Give us a half an hour or so and breakfast will be coming soon,” a guy told me as he led me back into the room.
Later, I went back out to call the embassy again. A young woman with orange-blonde, straightened hair looked at me as if she knew who I was.
“Are you ok?” she asked with more concern than I expected.
“Uh….yeah,” I said.
“I didn’t think you’d still be here. I thought the embassy would have gotten you out of here by now. I hoped you would be released.”
“Uh, me too,” I replied.
A different guy looked at me as he was walking by and said, “You need to call the embassy right now and tell them it’s an emergency because you’re in jail.” Not exactly the characterization the first guy had given.
I talked to the embassy, explaining my story again.
“You have to come to Tel Aviv, if you need a passport,” a woman said.
“I am in Tel Aviv. I’m being held,” I said.
“Oh, you’re being held! Oh, you’re Nicole LaCour. We’re working on trying to get you released or finding your passport.”
I asked her what would happen if I landed in Germany without my passport. Wouldn’t I be in the same situation? She told me she would inform the American Embassy in Germany and that I should ask to speak them as soon as I landed. It was not a solid plan.
Enter Wispy Woman: While I was sitting in the “lobby,” Orange-Blonde brought in an older woman who moved very timidly. She had curly, wispy hair. She didn’t have control of her curls. Her hair was a mousey brown with blonde tips, like she had dyed it once but let it go. She clutched her wallet and a book dearly to her chest.
“Get in here, m’am,” Orange-Blonde said, directing her to the women’s room.
“But I didn’t do anything,” Wispy Woman replied in a slow, wispy voice.
“Ma’m, please get in here,” Orange-Blonde insisted. The staff was generally very kind and accommodating, unless you resisted. That much I had seen already.
“You don’t understand,” Wispy whispered, “I’ve never been in a place like that before.”
“I am not asking you to get in. I’m telling you,” Orange said.
This was going on a few feet from me. I watched this exchange and wanted to say to Orange, “You know if you would just take a minute to explain to her why she’s here and what’s going to happen to her and when she’s going to leave and where she’s going to go, she might cooperate.”
I also wanted to say to Wispy, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Get in the room. What part of Israeli detention facility do you not understand?!”
She went in the room. I felt really sad for her.
I went back to the family room. Outside the doors were little eraser-board signs for names, like in a hospital. I looked at mine and was kind of insulted my name wasn’t on it.
I sat up on the top bunk. “Well, what do I do now?” I thought. I had a free day. No obligations. Nothing to be productive with. No where to go. No one even knew I was there. Might as well sleep. I was exhausted. I dozed off now and again. I wrote and drew.
The embassy must have lit a fire under the staff because every hour or so someone would come into my room and ask more questions or look at my driver’s license. Once someone said, “I think you’re going to be released today.” I imagined being allowed into the country, calling my airbnb host, salvaging the trip. Maybe I would still get to see the Hagia Sofia.
I was standing at the window watching a dove-looking bird making weird noises. I think he spoke Hebrew. He was on top of a large palm tree looking down like he was afraid of heights. I thought of Tracy Jordan in 30 Rock, “Have some dignity bird. Don’t you know you can fly?”
Sitting back on the bed, I thought about my ex. He would be loving this. Of all the stupid mistakes I’ve made in my life and there have been plenty….the keys locked out of cars and doors, things broken, phones dropped. I once flushed a beeper down a toilet. Lost jewelry, careless fender benders…..my ex hated that about me. It drove him nuts. Blame was part of the air I breathed. “It’s a shame we don’t talk anymore,” I thought. Finally, I was facing real consequences for my careless behavior. A lost trip, wasted money and actual detainment with the Israeli government. I couldn’t help but laugh at myself.
I hadn’t posted anything on facebook since Wednesday. I thought people might be worried so I decided to try to use my phone to make a post. A different guy took me to my phone.
“Why are you in Israel,” that question again. He looked at me like he didn’t understand what I was doing there.
“I wanted to see Jerusalem,” I said, “But I dropped my passport. I was stupid.”
There was no internet connection to make a post so I decided I better call someone. Mark or Lisa? Hmmm. What if I really needed someone to act as an advocate, just in case they don’t let me out of here? Better make it Lisa. I turned on all the switches to make an international call. The guy led me outside to get better reception.
“Hello. Oh hey….I didn’t realize what time it was there. Midnight. Oh sorry. Um, well, not exactly. I kind of ran into a problem. I lost my passport and they didn’t let me in and I’m being sort of detained. No, I’m ok. No, not the Americans. The Israelis. Could you post on facebook that I landed and that I’m safe.”
Someone fussed at the guy for taking me outside to use the phone so he directed me back in.
“I have to hang up now. Bye.”
I used to joke with Lisa that I wanted to have t-shirts made that said, “I danced with Wild Man at Whiskey River. You can’t touch me.”
I have a new t-shirt design now: “I spent two nights in an Israeli Detention Center. Don’t Even.”
The embassy finally said that Israel was refusing to let me in. They “denied my request for entry.” Lufthansa couldn’t find my passport, which may have been headed to Tel Aviv on Saturday. They said I would be flying to Germany at midnight.
The outside yard area doubled as a break area for the staff. They all smoked. They were all so young. They laughed and joked and yelled at each other from across the yard and up and down the floors like siblings in big house. They ignored us for the most part, just a revolving cast of characters, I’m sure. The women fascinated me. They had a sort of Jersey-girl look. The hair, the make-up, the nails, the jewelry but with a soldier-like toughness. An attitude. Anyone studying gender stereotypes? Feminist issues? I have a subject for you. It’s real easy to get inside this subculture. Just try to get into Israel without a passport and make sure you have several people in your phone with Muslim or Arab names. Also, put up some resistance if you want to see ideas of power, authority and gender turned on their heads.
Back inside, I watched the setting sun hit the tops of the palm trees outside my window. I imagined the Dome of the Rock being hit by the same rays, shining brilliantly. The gold donated by King Hussein and installed by Armenians. Or maybe that was the blue tile. I forget. They say this is the best time to be in the Old City. It’s Friday. People are likely ushering in the Sabbath at the Western Wall while others are making there way to or returning from Al-Aqsa. It was right there. Just an hour’s drive away.
A Room With a View popped into my head again.
“Sunset. The Sunset of Italy…..and she wandered as though in a dream through the wavering sea of barley…..all unobserved he came to her…..”
“Sunset. The Sunset of a Tel Aviv Detention Center….Isn’t it immortal?” I reworked the script.
Later that evening a man came into my room and said, “I need you to get your things and come with me. We have a family coming in.”
He took me to the women’s room, the one the first guy had shown me. Crazy Eyes and Wispy Woman were in there. It was a bit more scary in there but I knew I was flying out soon. It was smaller with more bunk beds, less light and no open window. They didn’t leave the door open. You had to knock if you needed something. I settled on a top bunk with the ceiling right above my head. I actually talked to Crazy Eyes. She didn’t seem as disturbed as she had in the airport. She spoke English, Spanish and German. I drew and wrote and watched the hands move on my little watch.
They brought a Russian woman in with red hair. Let’s call her Red. She tried to ask which bunks were taken. We had a minute or two of lost in translations moments with a het and yes attempted before I finally held up three fingers, telling her there were three of us here.
She found a spot and sat there, a bit dazed. She never lay down or got comfortable in any way. Wispy Woman on the other hand seemed to be nesting in an obsessive kind of way. She started looking around and touching all the wool blankets, like she was looking for a specific one. She moved slowly and timidly but her actions were possessive and aggressive. When she needed something she knocked on the door softly and timidly for 10-15 minutes. She started asking Red if she had taken her blanket. Red looked at her like she was crazy and looked up at me as if to say, “What’s with this bitch?” Knowing smiles were exchanged. I tried to ask Wispy why she was looking for a specific blanket.
“I don’t understand. Is one of them softer than the others?”
She ignored me. She tried to take Crazy Eye’s blanket who was laying down on her cot with a sheet over her. “Put that back please,” she said. I laughed. My sympathy for Wispy Woman was fading.
They gave us dinner and some chocolate covered waver things that were actually pretty good. The staff changed again. There was a young man that looked to me like a typical young studious Jewish student. The glasses, the hairstyle, his way of talking. I could picture him pouring over texts in a library. He asked us if we wanted to go outside again. Of course, we did. There was a mother and a little girl. One of the staff was a stunningly beautiful woman with deep black hair and a striking face. She seemed to be making a lot of effort to get the other guy’s attention. He was having none of it. They competed over the attention of a cat who seemed to like Crazy Eyes. Red was crying.
I walked looked up at the sky and saw Orion. I started to cry again. I was in Israel and I would be Germany by the morning without having seen anything. What a loss. I felt like such a fool. I sat down at the picnic table, put my head down and cried.
When we were coming back in, the glasses guy asked me, “Is everything ok?”
I looked at him incredulously, “No. Everything is not ok,” I said, allowing the sarcasm to escape.
“Is there anything I can do?” he asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“If you need anything don’t hesitate to ask,” he offered.
“I need my passport.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’re just going to go home.”
Right. I’m just going to go home.
Before we returned to the room, I asked someone at the front office, “The embassy said I’m flying out at midnight. Is that correct?”
“What’s your name? No. You fly out at 5:30am.”
“Ok, so what time will you come and get me?”
“4:30. We take you straight to the plane.”
“Ok,” I thought. “I just have to make it until 4:30.”
We returned to the room and Wispy Woman was handed a towel.
“I want a towel,” I thought.
The next time the door was opened I asked for a towel and some soap. I was going to wash my hair with soap, but it didn’t lather very much and I ended up just adding soap to my hair, I think. Oh well, a shower’s a shower.
Again, I tried to sleep but there was no way that was going to happen. Crazy Eyes was snoring and kicking her feet in her sleep like she had in the airport. “How can she sleep like that?” I wondered.
Around 2am, the door was opened and the light turned on and another Russian woman was brought in. She wore a dress with black stockings, boot-like high-heeled shoes and big pearls on the ears. She was very curvy and confident. She immediately started speaking Russian to Red who I think was very grateful to have someone to converse with. No doubt they were exchanging stories. I was happy to have the distraction. I sat up and watched and listened to them. I love being around people speaking a foreign language, even if or maybe especially because I can’t understand a word. It was so beautiful. Maybe it reminds me of being around my parents and grandparents when they spoke French around me.
They continued to converse, making gestures to Wispy Woman and laughing. I could tell Red was telling her about the blanket search. The new woman laughed readily. She wasn’t afraid.
Wispy Woman got up and went to the bathroom. She looked up at me and gestured for the time. “Was it morning?” she seemed to ask.
“Oh, no, it’s only 2:30am.” I said.
She went back to sleep. But the Russians continued to talk and the light was still on. Finally she tried to talk to them.
“They don’t speak English,” I said. I was loving this.
She gestured that perhaps they should tone it down and sleep.
The new woman looked at Wispy, then at Red and laughed. After a while, she finally acquiesced and said in broken English,
“Yes, yes. Ok. We sleep.”
She knocked on the door loudly and asked to get some sleep clothes. She changed and lay down in the bunk. They turned the lights off again.
That was the time I was the most scared and stressed. I was hours away from being put on a plane for Germany. What if they didn’t come get me at 4:30? I had been holding it together fairly well up until then. If they didn’t open that door at 4:30 I thought I might lose it. And then, what am I going to do in Germany? I still didn’t have my passport. How will I pay for a ticket back home? Will they exchange the flights I wasn’t going to use? Will the American Embassy be any more help there than they had been here?
I remembered the lenses in my bag. I had packed them carefully so they wouldn’t be damaged. The security people had not repacked them that way. “At 3:45, I’ll ask to see my luggage and rearrange the contents,” I thought. I was also expecting Aunt Irma at any moment and needed my provisions on the flight. I was at least smart enough to think of that.
I sat up and waited, looking at the window and checking the time every 20 minutes or so. Finally, at 3:45, I knocked on the door, loudly. Wispy Woman got up.
“Sorry,” I said. I wasn’t sorry.
Someone led me to my luggage and I packed my lenses properly. I took out my Lonely Planet guide book, “Israel and the Palestinian Territories,” looked at with a sigh and put it in my suitcase. My camera was in a locker.
“Please don’t let me forget my camera,” I said to the guy. “That would be the worst part of all of this.” He suggested I put it in one of my bags. I did.
He started to take me back to the room.
“So, you’re going to come and get me at 4:30, right?” I asked, looking at my watch. He must have seen the expression on my face.
“Would you like to wait here and have some coffee?”
“Oh, God yes!” I said, “Thank you!”
He served me some awful instant coffee and I waited, grateful not to have to be back in that room.
At 4:30, the glasses guy got the two Russian women and a man I hadn’t seen before and took us to get our luggage. We went out to a van and they all had a smoke before we left. Our luggage had red tags and special security stickers all over them. They drove us to the tarmac. Passing through one a gate was the only time I saw men with guns. We drove past El Al and other airplanes. I saw a Lufthansa plane. We stopped. The glasses guy got out and talked to someone on the ground. He gave them my luggage. He opened the door and escorted me out. I turned and waved by to the Russians, who had been talking and pointing at me most of the ride. He led me up the metal stairs, outside the plane. I walked in the loading arm just as other passengers were coming aboard.
I looked like shit. No make-up. I had a head cold so I had been blowing my nose. My hair was matted and gross. And I’m sure I had a very stressed look on my face. I can’t imagine what the other passengers thought as this security guy escorted me, holding my boarding passes and I clung to my bags with red tags all over them.
We walked into the cabin and the glasses guy handed the flight attendant my boarding pass. It was loud and people were moving past us.
“Here’s her pass to Munich,” he showed the attendant.
Then he flipped up to show a second one saying, “And here’s her pass to…..IAH, what’s IAH?” They didn’t know what the airport code was………but I did.
“I looked over at the boarding pass. IAH?!! Houston?! I’m going to Houston?!” I exclaimed. I burst into tears. “Oh God, I’m going to Houston!”
The fight attendant was alarmed. “Did you not want to go to Houston?”
“Yes. I want to go to Houston!” I said.
I turned to glasses guy and said, “Thank You.” I really don’t know why. He bowed to me with his hands together in a Namaste-kind of gesture, which was weird. I went into the cabin. The flight attendant put her arm around me and took me aside. I pulled myself together. She gave me some water.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just spent two nights in a detention center because I lost my passport. I didn’t know I was going back to the U.S.”
“Did they mistreat you?” she asked.
“No, no, they were very nice,” I said. “I’m just relieved to be going back to the states.”
I found my seat all the way in the back row between a young man and an older man. I put my things away and put my head in my hands and just cried. No one asks me what was wrong.
I just let myself cry for a few minutes, mourning my lost trip, punishing myself for being stupid and feeling relief that I would going back to Houston.
I wiped my face, sat back and sighed as the plane climbed steeply into the air, headed to Munich.
to be continued…
next: Coming Home